Opera Warhorses

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World Premiere Review: Patricia Racette’s Gritty “Dolores Claiborne” at San Francisco Opera – September 18, 2013

September 20th, 2013

In a spectacularly theatrical production that demonstrated the substantial resources the San Francisco Opera invests in a world premiere work, Tobias Picker’s opera based on Stephen King’s blockbuster novel Dolores Claiborne was given a lavish first performance.

[Below: Dolores Claiborne (Patricia Racette) is being questioned on suspicion of murder; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The  bestselling novel of 1992, previously adapted as a Hollywood film, Claiborne proved to be a worthy source for the new opera. Composer Tobias Picker and librettist J. D. McClatchy were inspired to create a searing drama of the troubled interrelationships of Dolores, housekeeper and companion for the wealthy Vera Donovan, Dolores’ abusive husband, Joe Saint George, and Selena, the issue of the troubled marriage between Dolores and Joe.

[Below: Joe Saint George (Wayne Tigges, left) engages in the battery of his wife Dolores (Patricia Racette, far right) and the molestation of their daughter Selena (Susannah Biller, center right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As with all but the few operas such as Richard Strauss’ “Salome”, Berg’s “Wozzeck” or Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”, in which a play has been transformed into an opera line by line, the source material, King’s novel, has had been revised substantially.

Characters (notably, Joe’s and Dolores’ two sons) have been excised from the plot, while the circumstances of Selena’s adulthood have been altered and deepened for emotional (and theatrical) effect.

[Below: Dolores (Patricia Racette, left) confronts Selena (Susannah Biller, right) on whether she has been molested by her father; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


But the major plot points of the novel – Joe’s physical abuse of Dolores, his acting upon his incestuous lust for his daughter, Dolores’ discovery that Joe, in effect, embezzled their daughter’s college fund, Dolores’ premeditation of the “accident” that results in Joe’s death – are intact.

[Below: Although Joe (Wayne Tigges, center, in well) has struggled back up from the well in which he had fallen, Dolores (Patricia Racette, left) will strike the coup de grâce; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Accepting what would seem as a daunting challenge, the task of converting a well-known literary work to the operatic form, the composer-librettist team centered on what seems to me to be the main point of the opera. Accidents can happen to abusive men. If the “accidents” are carefully planned, the requirement of the state to prove murder “beyond a reasonable doubt” will likely protect the avenging woman.

[Below: Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In those places that the plot is tweaked from King’s 300 pages detailing Dolores’ narrative to the investigating officer, Andy (nicely played by character tenor Greg Fedderly) , the opera’s libretto focuses the audience’s attention directly on the vengeful responses of Vera and Dolores to the hurt they both felt from their husbands.

Vera’s eccentricities are explored, notably her harrying of the maids she employs, micromanaging precisely how her sheets are to be hung up on the clothesline (a breezy episode whose billowing orchestration is counterpoint to Vera’s incessant calls for six pins, not four).

[Below: Vera (Elizabeth Futral, on staircase above) shouts out her instructions on how her maids should hang her bedsheets; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Played by the lyric coloratura soprano, Elizabeth Futral (rarely seen at San Francisco Opera), Vera seems a rather more sympathetic character in the hands of Picker and McClatchy that in those of King.

The most significant deviation from King’s novel is the career path of the daughter Selena, who becomes a lawyer, rather than a journalist, although this change seems rather a device for clarfiying a detail of the plot.

The investigator Andy has learned that Vera willed a fortune to Dolores, which he believed gave a motive for murder, but the lawyer Selena argues persuasively that, because the will was written seven years before, the long wait to take action could not be explained. (In both book and opera, Dolores gives her inheritance away to an orphan society anyway.)

[Below: Selena (Susannah Biller, left) confronts Andy (Greg Fedderly, second from left) as Dolores (Patricia Racette, seated, second from right) at the desk of the court stenographer; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Staging

The creative team of stage director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette and projection designer Greg Emetaz successfully conjured up the world of Little Tall Island, off Maine’s mainland coast.

Utilizing the full War Memorial Opera House stage, a mix of solid sets (several of which are movable, giving a cinematic feel to crucial scenes) and projections portray the cramped rooms of Dolores’ and Joe’s house, the exterior veranda on which Vera holds court, the interior staircase on which Vera dies, the ferry between Little Tall and the mainland, and the landscape around the fatal well.

[Below: An Allen Moyer stage set and Greg Emetaz projection portray Joe’s and Dolores’ household; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.


The Musical Performance

A conductor for an opera’s world premiere has special responsibilities to make what is written in the orchestral scores work as intended. The results by George Manahan, in his San Francisco Opera debut, were impressive, presenting a vigorous reading of Picker’s highly dramatic and often densely orchestrated score.

The big story was a change of the artist responsible for the world premiere performances – a surprising outcome in many ways.The title role had been written for dramatic mezzo Dolora Zajick. An injury required her withdrawal.

Patricia Racette’s Dolores

Dramatic soprano Patricia Racette, although closely associated with composer Picker (having created the title role of his first opera, “Emmeline”), was already engaged in a month of San Francisco Opera performances of the roles of Margherita and Elena in Boito’s “Mefistofele”. [See World Treasure: Carsen’s Magnificent “Mefistofele” Returns to San Francisco Opera – September 6, 2013].

[Below: Dolores (Patricia Racette, reflecting on her new freedom from her menacing husband; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Racette studied the score, and decided that, although written for a mezzo, the role’s range complemented her voice. She agreed to take over the first four performances, while continuing to perform in “Mefistofele”. (Mezzo Catherine Cook will sing the final two performances.)

In fact, it proved a vocal and histrionic triumph for Racette, virtually erasing from one’s memory the fact that four weeks ago, most everyone expected someone else to perform the role.

Racette’s characterization was extraordinary, revealing a woman coping with sorrow, confusion, then conviction that she was in the right. Racette brought her voice of power, but was always convincing in the moments that required subtlety and intimacy.

Other Performing Artists

Her supporting cast was excellent. Elizabeth Futral’s vivid portrayal of Vera and Wayne Tigges’ sinister Joe Saint George were both deeply effective. Susannah Biller was convincing both as the teenage Selena and the mature, but emotionally troubled, adult.

I had previously praised Greg Fedderly’s Andy Thibodeau. Praise also is deserved by Joel Sorenson as the banker, Mr Pease. Others in the supporting cast included Nikki Einfeld, Jacquiline Piccolino, Marina Harris, Laura Krumm and Renee Rapier as the maids. Robert Watson, A. J. Glueckert and Hadleigh Adams were respectively Cox, Knox and Fox.

[Below: Susannah Biller as Selena; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]



This is a worthy addition to Tobias Picker’s canon of work, presented in a superb production by the San Francisco Opera. I recommend it to all opera goers who appreciate the contributions of contemporary American opera to the art form.

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